BALTIMORE – Oz Bengur, father of a Marine stationed in Iraq and a candidate for the 3rd Congressional District, unveiled an 18-month timetable Tuesday — just a day before President Bush comes to the U.S. Naval Academy to talk about the terrorism war — for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
“Remaining in Iraq is no longer worth the cost in American lives and treasure,” Bengur said in a short speech at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “We can help the Iraqis, but they must take responsibility for their own security.”
Bengur, treasurer of the Maryland Democratic Party, joins several candidates in Maryland’s hottest federal races — for the 3rd District and the U.S. Senate — who are jostling to stake out positions on the war amid the bipartisan clamor on Capitol Hill over troop withdrawal.
The debate came after Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a Vietnam and Korean War veteran, released a plan Nov. 17 to bring American troops home, saying the war had become unwinnable. Murtha’s announcement unleashed a firestorm of criticism against him, but also galvanized a foreign policy debate among public office holders — and the people who hope to replace them.
“He’s right. I think the American people are ahead of Congress on this,” Bengur said in an interview. Murtha’s “courageous” statements have compelled people to tell voters where they stand and influenced his own plan for Iraq, he said.
The first part of Bengur’s two-phase plan calls for moving all American troops from the field to established military bases in Iraq over the next six months, where they would continue to assist Iraqi military training and serve as a rapid reaction force.
In the second phase, slated to end in the second half of 2007, all American troops would leave Iraq — although some would remain at established military bases in neighboring countries “in case things become very conflicted and difficult,” said Dr. Louis Cantori, a former Marine and instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and Marine Corps University who advised Bengur on his plan.
Bengur said he also consulted with military and diplomatic experts like the former director of the National Security Agency, Lt. Gen. William Odom, and former Ambassador Morton Abramowitz.
Bengur, whose son, Capt. Noah Bengur, is a jet pilot stationed in Iraq, said he started working on an exit plan about three weeks ago, before Murtha’s statement, after he kept hearing “the same thing” in his door-to-door campaign: Voters want a specific strategy for leaving Iraq.
Bengur’s Democratic rivals in the 3rd District race agree.
“I don’t know anybody in the 3rd Congressional District who’s for keeping our troops there, to stay the course,” said state Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County.
Public approval of the war has steadily declined since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003. By this October, nearly six of 10 Americans said U.S. troops should leave Iraq immediately, according to CBS polls. Only 25 percent of Marylanders approve of the war, according to an October poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.
Hollinger and Dr. Peter Beilenson, the former Baltimore health commissioner, emphasized their own opposition to the war and their support for a gradual troop withdrawal. They had not yet read Bengur’s plan.
Beilenson said he’s been advocating since July his own two-part plan that includes a 12-month withdrawal period from Iraq and a sustained focus on veterans’ benefits at home. He agreed with Bengur that leaving Iraq would encourage Iraqis to address their own needs and would remove American troops as a pretext for terrorist activity.
“Our presence has been the main thing fomenting the insurgency,” Beilenson said.
Kevin O’Keeffe, former senior aide to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens and another Democrat in the 3rd District race, could not be reached for comment.
Bengur’s plan assumes that announcing a date for American withdrawal would make all parties in Iraq direct their concerns toward each other and not toward the Americans, Cantori said.
“If our objective was to see if WMDs were there, if our objective was to remove Saddam Hussein, we’ve achieved that objective,” Bengur said.
John Sarbanes, the senator’s son who is also running against Bengur, wouldn’t say if he’d offer his own plan for Iraq but offered grudging approval of Bengur’s stand.
“I would say, just generally, that it’s a very positive development that people can now have a very meaningful discussion of the prospect of how and when to leave Iraq without their patriotism being questioned,” Sarbanes said.
“I think the administration has recognized that they can’t keep that debate and that discussion in a box anymore.”